Reading and understanding river patterns are a top priority if you’re after catfish who live there.
Casual observers may look at the myriad of rivers that flow through Mississippi and simply see water moving from Point A to Point B.
Catfish anglers who ply these rivers, which include big ones like the Mississippi, Pearl, Pascagoula and Tombigbee and even smaller ones like the Tallahatchie, Yazoo, Big Black, Leaf and Chickasawhay, see ever-changing environments where fish can hold in one area one day and somewhere else the next.
Moreso than the lakes, ponds and reservoirs — and even the Magnolia State’s coastal waters — river-fishing presents an almost daily challenge for anglers. Understanding changes in patterns and how catfish relate to them is key to catching them. Why, whole volumes of books could be written about year-round changes, fall patterns tend to be a favorite among veteran catters.
Fish falling waters
Ben Goebel, a Mississippi-based member of the B’n’M Poles pro staff, said falling water levels are a very predictable pattern for catching catfish on the Mississippi River.
“The river has been up almost all year,” Goebel said. “That gives catfish a lot of different places to go, but when the water recedes, they drop back into more predictable and dependable locations.”
Like many Mississippi River catfishermen, Goebel’s go-to tactic for 90% of his fishing is bumping. He uses a variable-speed trolling motor to keep his boat pointed upcurrent, while the river slowly moves him downstream. In this manner, he and his clients can “bump” baits along the bottom to target catfish.
“Most people think about still-fishing while anchored in deep holes on the Mississippi,” he said. “This time of year, with falling water levels, catfish are more likely to be holding on deep-water flats in 45 to 50 feet of water. They’re orienting to ledges and current seams.”
He said that with fish vacating shoreline areas in favor of the river channel, he finds that these fish out in the middle of the river are more inclined to feed.
“It’s all a big puzzle, and for me, it’s what makes catfishing interesting,” he said. “In one particular spot, I might have a run where fish are holding next to some structure at the top of the run, and then a little further back, there might be few more fish that are simply orienting to a seam in the current out on a flat. Then, toward the edge of the run, there could be some more fish holding on a ledge that drops into a deeper area of the river.”
Locate deep holes
One of the keys to catching big catfish from any river is knowing where to find them. Trophy-sized catfish will lay up in deep holes on a nearly year-round basis, and one of the easiest, most consistent places to find good catfish holes is around a wing dike.
Wing dikes are plentiful and found up and down many large rivers. A wing dike, aka wing dam, is a man-made barrier that, unlike a conventional dam, only extends partway into a river. These structures force water into a fast-moving, center channel that reduces the rate of sediment accumulation, while slowing water flow near the banks.
Guide Bob Crosby from Madison said fishing wing dikes is an obvious choice for most catfish anglers, but there more to it than meets the eye.
“The average dike is probably a couple hundred yards long,” he said. “You can anchor up on the edge of the dike, where the main current is blowing through the cutout. Catfish will hold right on the edge of the main current and the slower current. Use your graph, find the fish and anchor up on them.”
Steady water levels
While water levels are sometimes in a state of flux, especially on the Mississippi where Crosby fishes, the fall typically presents the most-stable water levels of the year.
“Most of the dikes come out of the water at Vicksburg at about 14 feet, but they’re all out at 12 feet,” Crosby said. “If water conditions remain steady at this level, meaning not a lot of rapid ups or downs, it’s no trouble to fish the scour holes at the ends of the dikes. That’s where I catch the majority of my big fish.
Once he is settled, Crosby will fan-cast rods around his boat in locations catfish are likely to hold. He may place a couple of baits on the downslope of a hole and a couple straight off into the depths.
“I prefer to target larger catfish, so most of my tackle is outfitted with two-hook rigs,” he said. “That’s a hook in the head and a trailer hook in the tail on a fresh, 8- to 10-inch skipjack. I use 8/0 Gamakatsu circle hooks with a slider for my sinker like a slip slider. Typically, I use 6- to 8-ounce to weights to keep the bait on the bottom in a moderate current.”
Man-made current breaks
Angler Joey Pounders of Caledonia said a lot of anglers target blue catfish in deep holes, but he has found that whether he is fishing deep or shallow, the key element is moving water with structure that provides a current break.
“You’re going to get more action when the current is going than when not,” he said. “If the water’s dead that day in that area, don’t even worry about fishing that spot. If the water’s blowing, it’s more likely to be a great spot to fish, especially if you can find a current break like a bridge piling or laydown tree, because the fish are going to huddle around the back side of these things.”
Pounders will anchor his boat, rigged with sturdy rod holders around the stern and cast to several spots in that area.
“My bait of choice is live shad, cast-netted directly from the lake at the start of the trip or the night before. Sizes will range anywhere from 5 to 8 inches in length and possibly a filleted shad for blue cats. I’ll fan-cast six rods, I use the B’n’M Silver Cats Magnum rods, evenly distributing baits in various water depths and structure,” he said.
Kayaking for catfish
Mike Curtis and his family discovered the fun of paddling and catching catfish from small- to medium-sized rivers several years ago. Unlike most die-hard kayak anglers, the Curtis family forgoes all the gear and tackle normally associated with kayak fishing, and especially catfishing, and opts for a more simple approach.
This fact is best illustrated in their bait choices, which more readily found in the grocery store than the local bait shop.
“My favorite bait for catfishing in the river is fresh, raw chicken breast,” Curtis said. “We cut it into racquetball-sized chunks and let it float in the current.”
The Curtis family also fishes from a fleet of varied cockpit-style touring kayaks, without the myriad of rod holders normally associated with catfish. One paddler, one rod is the favored approach. Curtis explains how the family catfishing pattern came into existence.
“For the most part, we just float the river and cast the bait either out front or to the side,” he said. “I rig the baits on an 8/0 circle hook and float it under a large slip cork. I just let the current carry the bait in front of me, and we cover water. Every so often, I’ll cast along the bank, just like I was bream fishing with bait under a cork.”
Unlike bream fishing, Curtis’ standard gear is a Shakespeare Catfish Ugly Stik and a Penn 4500 reel spooled with 55 pound braided line.
Curtis said the fishing is either float down and paddle back or, if there are two cars available for a longer float, they will park one downstream at the next take-out and float a stretch.